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Obama And The Russians: Moving On To The 'Post-Reset'

Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) speaks with U.S. President Barack Obama at a G20 summit in Los Cabos, Mexico in June.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) speaks with U.S. President Barack Obama at a G20 summit in Los Cabos, Mexico in June.

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A second term does not necessarily mean a repeat of the first.

By most accounts, the Kremlin was hoping U.S. President Barack Obama would win a second term. His rival, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, declared during the campaign that Russia is the United States' leading "geopolitical foe."

By comparison, Putin sees the familiar Obama, analysts say, as more predictable and less enamored of U.S. international exceptionalism.

"I just recently was in Moscow talking to various people in government and outside the government who work in the foreign policy world and they certainly have been hoping that Obama would win because from their point of view he is the devil they know," Charles Grant, director of the Center for European Reform in London, says. "They don't like Obama that much -- they have a lot of problems with him in certain areas, like his plans for missile defense -- but they know what he stands for and, as one member of the Russian Duma said to me, he understands we are living in a multipolar world."

Now, the Kremlin has its wish, but that doesn't mean a return to the relatively warm relations of the "reset" of 2009 and 2010 is likely in the cards.

"The reset that Obama engineered with President Dmitry Medvedev has really come to an end," Grant says. "Since Putin became president for a third term, that sort of close rapprochement between Washington and Moscow has sort of evaporated, so I think there is more coolness than there was [before], even with Obama's victory."

During the brief reset, Washington and Moscow were able to sign the landmark START treaty, agree on four rounds of international sanctions on Iran, and generally reduce bilateral tensions that had soared at the end of George W. Bush's presidency. Now, however, harder issues remain on the table -- Afghanistan after the 2014 withdrawal of NATO-led combat forces, Iran, U.S. missile-defense plans, and Syria.

"The low-hanging fruit has already been picked, so [cooperation] will be less substantial than before," Anders Aslund, a senior fellow at the Petersen Institute of International Economics in Washington, says. "And the Russian suspicions about missile defense -- rather Putin's suspicions about missile defense -- will be quite strong."

'Difficult Period'

Although relations with Russia are not on the top of the new Obama administration's agenda, Andrew Kuchins, director of the Russia and Eurasia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, foresees a reassessment of past policies and a new road map for bilateral ties.

"The U.S.-Russian relationship [has] been in a difficult period and [it] will continue to be pretty difficult for the time period ahead," Kuchins says. "I think that the Obama administration will be conducting a review of their Russian policies and where it is going in the light of a number of different developments in the last year and a half or two years. And we'll just have to see where they come out with that."

Among the developments that could motivate this reconsideration, Kuchins includes differences over missile defense; Russia's reaction to the Arab Spring, especially to events in Syria; and legislative and presidential elections in Russia in 2011 and 2012 that were viewed in the West as undemocratic.

The keystone of the reset -- cooperation on establishing security in Afghanistan -- will likely continue. But as the expected withdrawal of NATO-led combat forces by the end of 2014 approaches, difficult-to-assuage tensions could surface even in this area, Kuchins says.

"The Russians will be supportive, for the most part, of our efforts in Afghanistan, but they -- like a lot of people around the world and a lot of people in the United States -- have questions about just what is the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan post-2014 and what kind of deployment of U.S. military and security forces would be in the region -- inside Afghanistan and outside of Afghanistan," Kuchins says. "And that, of course, is an area where there is possibility for significant disagreement between the United States and Russia."

Moscow has also opposed further economic sanctions against Iran over its disputed nuclear program, another issue that is likely to greatly complicate relations with Washington in the coming months.

Tough Talk

Analyst Grant notes that U.S.-Russian relations are determined as much by who is in the Kremlin as they are by who is in the White House, and that Putin has turned a particularly enigmatic face to the United States in recent months.

"There is a kind of contradiction in Putin's attitude towards America," Grant says. "On the one hand, when he met Obama at the G20 in Mexico, I'm told he was very constructive and said he wanted to work with Obama. And certainly in meetings I've had with Russian leaders recently, they have been quiet, calm, and sober on the United States rather than rhetorically aggressive. On the other hand, you have the public rhetoric out of the Russian media, which is strongly anti-American."

He notes that Russian TV news tends to portray the United States in "a very negative light almost all the time."

The CSIS's Kuchins agrees, describing Obama as "pretty pragmatic in that regard."

He suggests that Obama is likely "to engage with international partners that he believes he can have success with and reach some agreements with."

"He was able to do that with Dmitry Medvedev in Russia several years ago," Kuchins says. "The prospects of doing that with Vladimir Putin in Russia are going to be more difficult."
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Comment Sorting
by: Eugenio from: Vienna
November 07, 2012 19:42
No one will be moving anywhere. Can anyone actually explain what this "policy of reset" consisted in? From what I could see, the only trend in the Russia-US relations of the last four years consisted in Putin slowly but steadily kicking the US-lackey installed in Eastern Europe by George W. out of power:
(a) Yushchenko and Julia in UKRAINE (mission of kicking them out VERY successfully accomplished);
(b) Tadic and his friends in Serbia (successfully accomplished as well);
(c) Basescu and his friends in Romania (in the process of being accomplished);
(d) Mischa and his friends in Georgia (being accomplished right now - look at one of the articles on the very front page of this site!);
(e) additionally, last nails seem to have been put into the coffin of the Nabucco gas-pipeline-project that has for years been promoted by George W. - whereas the Putin's South Stream will start being constructed within a couple of months;
(f) most friends of Putin - such as Chávez, Ahmadinejad or Bashar al-Assad - have stayed in power, whereas quite a few friends of the US (add Mubarak to those mentioned above) have left or are leaving the scene
etc etc etc
And Obama? What was his reaction to all of the above? No reaction, nothing. And this is understanble: the guy has no clue what to do about the imminent US default on its sovereign debt - where would he find time to react to Putin cleaning Eastern Europe from the US friends? That's the essence of the "policy of reset" for me.
In Response

by: Andrew from: Auckland
November 08, 2012 12:54
Eugenio, we all know your queer view of the world, but to be honest, Ivanishvili is very pro US, and quite anti Russian government.
He has refused to have diplomatic relations with Russia while they still occupy 20% of Georgia's territory.
He sees Russia as an existential threat to Georgia, he just believes that the Georgian government should avoid getting into fights with Russia that it could never win.
In fact, if anything, the Russian government are less happy about Ivanishvili winning. He will forge on down the road of things the Russians (and people like yourself) hate, rule of law, human rights, freedom of speech.
In Response

by: Eugenio from: Vienna
November 08, 2012 20:46
You are saying: "things the Russians (and people like yourself) hate, rule of law, human rights, freedom of speech" :-))). Ah, the most important thing is that the US love all those things you mentioned: Every time they kill a family in Afghanistan with a drone, it is - as we all very well know - to promote the "rule of law, human rights and freedom of speech".
In Response

by: Anonymous from: USA
November 08, 2012 18:15
How you love to point out that Chavez is a friend of Putin...yet ignore the close friendship Putin has with Silvio Berlosconi, a capitalist billionaire with a media empire who recently threatened to bring down the Italian government in revenge for being prosecuted for crimes he made while President of Italy. Birds of a feather flock together....
In Response

by: Eugenio from: Vienna
November 08, 2012 21:01
Dear Anonymous, just for your info, the name of the "President of Italy" is Giorgio Neapolitano, whereas Silvio Berlusconi was the Italian Prime-Minister.
I see your point concerning Berlusconi: one can raise a lot of objections to his personality. However, it's interesting to notice that however many scandals the guy was involved in - it never seemed to bother Frau Merkel and other EU and NATO decision-makers too much. But the very moment he started criticizing the EURO - this project of the Germans which is at present so successfully destroying the economies of such countries as Italy, Greece, Spain of Portugal - he was removed from his position as the Italian PM WITHIN DAYS. So, very frankly, when I hear his name, what comes to my mind first is the easiness with which here in this "free" Europe democratically elected leaders (and Berlusconi was actually elected by the Italians, let's not forget about it!) are replaced by such guys as Mario Monti (the current "technical" PM of Italy) who have actually never been elected by anyone. So, what happened to Berlusconi tells a lot about the current state of "democracy" in this "free" Europe, and Putin has absolutely nothing to do with it.

by: Marina
November 08, 2012 10:55
article by laid off Liberty journalist Kristina Gorelik

by: Mamuka
November 08, 2012 11:51
I do not understand why you say that Medvedev helped "engineer" the "reset." This was a gift prepared by Obama and Clinton and given to the Russians with no strings attached. Medvedev may have tried to take advantage of it or possibly even expand it, but he had nothing to do with developing it. And in the end, Mr Putin has essentially rejected it. But don't worry, I'm sure that Reset-2 will be offered soon, now that Mr Obama has more flexibility.
In Response

by: Eugenio from: Vienna
November 08, 2012 20:49
You are saying that "the reset was a gift". A "gift"??? But what did this gift consist in, Mamuka? Just curious :-)).
In Response

by: Konstantin from: Los Angeles
November 10, 2012 13:09
To satisfy your not so genuine curious thought:
If Medvedev might expand it into the area of expansion,
If Putin rejected for larger expansion, that US didn't bought,
US continue "gift" to USSR-CIS transformation asssistance,
Which Russia betrayed from start, leuring USa into a hold.

As for simce difficult to read facial expression of Obama,
Did Putin remind him of his Russian Jew grandmama?

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